Farming A Healthier Diet

Our thanks to Brent Loken for summarizing some the possibilities of better farming for a healthier diet:

About 10,000 years ago, humans began to farm. This agricultural revolution was a turning point in our history and enabled the existence of civilization. Today, nearly 40 percent of our planet is farmland. Spread all over the world, these lands are the pieces to a global puzzle we’re all facing: in the future, how can we feed every member of a growing population a healthy diet?

Understanding The Life Of Our Groceries

We apparently do not look as closely as we should when we go to the supermarket. One paragraph from this book review should be enough to know whether you want a closer look:

…Author Benjamin Lorr spent five years looking into that as he studied all aspects of American supermarkets — from the suppliers, the distributors, and supply routes, to the workers in the retail outlets themselves. In the reporting for his new book The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, Lorr met with farmers and field workers and spent 120-hours-straight driving the highways with a trucker as she made her multistate rounds. He worked the fish counter at a Whole Foods market for a few months, and went to trade shows to learn about entrepreneurs who were trying to break into the industry. He also traveled to Asia to learn about commodity fishing – finding human rights violations along his journey…

Antitrust considerations might be of interest if you plan to purchase The Secret Life of Groceries.

Biochar & Regeneration During The Dry Season

This is not the first time I am hearing of it, but this concept is counterintuitive to me because it involves combustion, which I associate with carbon emissions. On our hillside we are working to regenerate quality soil on what once was a fertile, productive coffee farm. When the sun rises over what we planted this year to help prepare the soil for next year’s coffee planting, I have been considering what we need to do differently during the dry season. October is the last month of rainy season, so we are almost there. It is clear that we need all the good ideas we can find in this effort. This seems worthy of consideration:

Loading soil with biochar allows farmers to cut way back on irrigation

At high applications levels, researchers found that biochar can not only soak up a lot of carbon, but also reduce the need for irrigation by almost 40%.

Biochar – the charcoal product used to enrich agricultural soil and trap carbon—may have a hidden commercial benefit for farmers: it could lock moisture in the soil and save on gallons of costly irrigation.

The coarse, black material, made by combusting wood, grass, and other organic materials under low-oxygen conditions, helps to sequester carbon in the soil. Continue reading

Feedlot Paradigm Progress

A dust cloud over the Bovina Cattle Company’s feed yard near Bovina, Texas.

As we all hopefully make progress on our reduction of meat consumption, Henry Fountain and George Steinmetz (photographs and video) add to our understanding of how cattle are raised now, and what could change to reduce the carbon footprint:

Belching Cows and Endless Feedlots: Fixing Cattle’s Climate Issues

The United States is home to 95 million cattle, and changing what they eat could have a significant effect on emissions of greenhouse gases like methane that are warming the world.

HAPPY, Texas — Randy Shields looked out at a sea of cattle at the sprawling Wrangler Feedyard — 46,000 animals milling about in the dry Panhandle air as a feed truck swept by on its way to their pens. Continue reading

Coffee Rust Never Sleeps

It is not that we avoid this topic. Over the years we have posted plenty of times on it. It is complex, with no clear solution in view so we have avoided the most depressing stories on the topic, of which there are plenty. The topic matters very much to our current livelihood, so we are constantly on the lookout for stories that illuminate with science, touch with humanity, and/or frighten with clarity. We share one today that does all three. We have featured the work of Maryn McKenna just once before, and now is as good a time as any to do so again. Guatemala is in our neighborhood and the story she tells could have as easily been here in Costa Rica. We thank the Atlantic for publishing it:

Coffee Rust Is Going to Ruin Your Morning

Coffee plants were supposed to be safe on this side of the Atlantic. But the fungus found them.

In the southern corner of Guatemala, outside the tiny mountain town of San Pedro Yepocapa, Elmer Gabriel’s coffee plants ought to be leafed-out and gleaming. It is a week before Christmas, the heart of the coffee-harvesting season, and if his bushes were healthy, they would look like holiday trees hung with ornaments, studded with bright-red coffee cherries. But in a long row that stretches down the side of his steeply sloped field, the plants are twiggy and withered. Most of their leaves are gone, and the ones that remain are drab olive and curling at the edges. There are yellow spots, brown in the center, on the leaves’ upper surfaces. On the underside they are pebbly, and coated with a fine orange dust. Continue reading

Gastropod Defense Team? Not so fast…

Visitors to this site know that coffee plays a significant role in the lives of many of our contributors, so the threat of rust is something we’ve been aware of for some time as well. We’re usually in favor of finding natural and non-invasive solutions to pest problems, but are quite aware that “non-invasive” must be the operative word.

The unintended consequences of using the invasive Asian tramp snail as a biological control could be significant, causing more harm than help. The studies here suggest that selective planting amid the coffee could provide various solutions, which consider the benefits of the polyculture planting methods of shade-grown coffee.

What Tiny Snail Poop Could Mean For Latin America’s Coffee Farms

Zachary Hajian-Forooshani never expected to find snails in the mountainous, coffee-producing heart of Puerto Rico. In 2016, when he was a University of Michigan masters student, he and his peers noticed some curious excrement on the undersides of coffee plants, which they eventually traced to the invasive Asian tramp snail. “Cool things pop out and you follow up with them,” says Hajian-Forooshani, who has made the snails and their colorful poop the subject of his doctoral research. “I just followed a trail of excrement.”

The oddly colored snail poop was, not coincidentally, the same bright-orange color as coffee rust, a parasitic fungus that’s coming for your morning buzz.

Central American farmers have tried breeding hybrid coffee species that are rust-resilient, but the fast-moving fungus is quick to develop an immunity to that resistance. ADAM KEOUGH/PUBLIC DOMAIN MARK 1.0

Coffee leaf rust has been a menace for more than a century. After appearing on Sri Lanka in the late 1800s, it enveloped the island within 20 years, ridding what was once the world’s greatest coffee exporter of its cash crop in near entirety. Traveling on the wind across Africa’s coffee belt, coffee rust reached the Atlantic coast by the 1950s. Its arrival in Brazil in 1970 sowed panic in a heavily coffee-reliant economy, and within 12 years, no coffee-producing region in Latin America, where seven-eighths of the world’s joe is produced, was rust-free. Today, 70 percent of Central American farms are infected, costing the region $3.2 billion in damage and lost income. Continue reading

From Gardens Long Gone, Now Revived

These dates sprouted from 2,000-year-old seeds retrieved from archaeological sites in the Judean wilderness. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

While we are on the topic of gardens, let’s continue on a roll:

Aided by Modern Ingenuity, a Taste of Ancient Judean Dates

The harvest of the much-extolled but long-lost Judean dates was something of a scientific miracle. The fruit sprouted from seeds 2,000 years old.

The proud father Methuselah, grown from ancient seeds, at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert, Israel. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

KETURA, Israel — The plump, golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil were finally ready to pick.

They had been slowly ripening in the desert heat for months. But the young tree on which they grew had a much more ancient history — sprouting from a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from an archaeological site in the Judean wilderness. Continue reading

Puzzling Palm Positivity

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I saw this photo while skimming the headlines in the Environmental News section of the Guardian’s website. I have been skimming that section most mornings since July, 2011. Out of 3,000+ times skimming and always finding at least one news story to click through to read, today was the first time I ever clicked on an image that I could see was part of a paid advertisement. I landed on a screen filled with this:

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I have replicated as best I can what I saw, including the links to the messages embedded behind each of the images. The images of palm plantations are so pretty. The messages are so positive.

I am puzzled.

Palm?

Positive?

Regenerating, Banana & Plantain

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Following yesterday’s theme, but switching to another example, today I will say a few words more about the pitch. The last time I spent time thinking about bananas as much as I am now, it was in the context of creating an edible landscape. Amie and other team members wrote plenty on this topic when we were based in Kerala.

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Now that I am prepping for regeneration I am watching these banana and plantain plantings grow day to day, week to week as I remove the grasses surrounding them. Continue reading

Regenerating, Early Steps

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In the early stages of regenerating this erstwhile coffee farm, moving decades-old ornamentals to the periphery has been an important activity. But some ornamentals stay put. The purple flowers center-left in the image above are a favorite of both hummingbirds and butterflies, so that bush, planted only one year ago, was a no-go. And behind it, a bougainvillea that was planted in 2001 remains because it has become a favorite place for hens to bring their chicks to hide under the foliage from a grey hawk that has taken up residence above in the poro trees.

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In this image above, in the background is a sibling of the bougainvillea planted in 2001, and this one was already closer to the periphery so did not need moving. But in the foreground is an example of another ornamental that has a completely different purpose. It is, frankly, an ugly ornamental as these things go. It does not produce flowers, instead putting its energy and other resources underground to create a strong, deep root system. It is planted for soil retention. And this stalk was cut from a mature version of the same, as seen below. Continue reading

Curvy Berms, Seedlings & Fertile Earth

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Curvy berm

What looks like an elongated haystack curving downslope in this photo we call a berm. No hay there, just a mix of cut grass covering branches, logs, and such. The purpose of a berm, diagonally traversing this hill, is explained better by others. When we prune trees and bushes, cut grass, and find old logs on the land their biomass help build this berm. Recently we trimmed all our vetiver grass, a soil retention ally that grows waist-high in rows throughout our hills. We cut it back twice a year, and added it to the  top of the curvy berm.

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Poro seedlings

To the left of that berm are re-plantings of a type of palm that we had growing on the property already, which birds love for the orange fruit it provides and for nesting. Those 20 palms join the 30 banana and plantain trees on the flat area below, and the dozen or so citrus trees recently planted. The shade-providing and nitrogen-fixing tree called poro will be planted during the next waning moon cycle.

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Poro trees, parents of the seedlings, with vetiver grass downslope

We have collected hundreds of seedlings from the poro trees originally planted when this land was part of a coffee farm.

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This rainbow reminded me to document the work on the land where the bees are, and where the coffee will be. For now, just a quick note. On the lower left of the photo above you can see where I have been using a pickax to loosen soil, dark and rich and teeming with earthworms, for planting in between the rows of bananas. I last cleared this space before we moved to Croatia in 2006. The grasses and vines that occupied this space for the intervening years until recent months, now our enemy for growing plants we favor, have performed an amazing ecosystem service. The earthworms and smell of the soil tell me that.

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End of day, sunset time, back on the terrace of our home, an unexpected spectacle. In the photo below, which is looking due east, the sun is coming from the west, hitting Irazu volcano and lighting it up in such a way that it almost looks like golden lava is flowing down its cone. I’ll take that view, with thanks to whatever caused it.

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Sunset-illuminated Irazu volcano in the distance

Scaling The Urban Farm, In Paris

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Nature Urbaine. Photograph: Magali Delporte/The Guardian

The future of food: inside the world’s largest urban farm – built on a rooftop

In Paris, urban farmers are trying a soil-free approach to agriculture that uses less space and fewer resources. Could it help cities face the threats to our food supplies?

Thanks to the Guardian for keeping stories like this  coming:

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Urban farming on a Parisian rooftop. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

On top of a striking new exhibition hall in the southern 15th arrondissement of Paris, the world’s largest urban rooftop farm has started to bear fruit. Strawberries, to be precise: small, intensely flavoured and resplendently red.

They sprout abundantly from cream-coloured plastic columns. Pluck one out to peer inside and you see the columns are completely hollow, the roots of dozens of strawberry plants dangling into thin air.

From identical vertical columns nearby burst row upon row of lettuces; near those are aromatic basil, sage and peppermint. Opposite, in narrow, horizontal trays packed not with soil but coco coir (coconut fibre), grow heirloom and cherry tomatoes, shiny aubergines and brightly coloured chards. Continue reading

Rock Dust Carbon Cure

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 Crushed basalt is applied to an arable field in Norfolk as part of the research programme of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation. Photograph: Dr Dimitar Epihov

At first glance, this seemed like a headline from a satirical news site, but it is serious:

Spreading rock dust on fields could remove vast amounts of CO2 from air

It may be best near-term way to remove CO2, say scientists, but cutting fossil fuel use remains critical

Spreading rock dust on farmland could suck billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air every year, according to the first detailed global analysis of the technique.

The chemical reactions that degrade the rock particles lock the greenhouse gas into carbonates within months, and some scientists say this approach may be the best near-term way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The researchers are clear that cutting the fossil fuel burning that releases CO2 is the most important action needed to tackle the climate emergency. Continue reading

Carbon Smart Farming

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Trey Hill on his farm in Rock Hall, Maryland. MICHELLE FRANKFURTER/FERN

Gabriel Popkin came to my attention twice when I was based in Belize, and had an obsession with Mayan foodways that led to a year of thinking about how to commercialize brosimum alicastrum in the USA. That seemed to have been in vain, except here we are on the trail again. Gabriel Popkin came to my attention a third time in 2017 and then I did not see any of his work again until today. It is good to see it again:

Can ‘Carbon Smart’ Farming Play a Key Role in the Climate Fight?

Markets are emerging to pay farmers to store more carbon in the soil by using improved agricultural practices. But flows of greenhouse gases into and out of soil are complex, and some scientists are questioning whether these efforts will actually help slow global warming.

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Trey Hill shows off the carbon-rich soil under his crops. GABRIEL POPKIN/FERN AND E360

Trey Hill led a small group of fellow farmers to a field outside his office in Rock Hall on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was a cloudy February day, but the ground was alive with color — purple and red turnip tops mixing exuberantly with green rye, vetch and clover, and beneath it all, rich brown soil. Hill reached down, yanked a long, thick, white daikon radish from the earth and showed his visitors sumptuous coffee-colored clods clinging to hairy rootlets. Those clumps, he explained, hoard carbon — carbon that’s not heating the planet. Continue reading

Saving The Harvest In Europe

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Strawberries at Greens Berry farm in Wexford, Ireland. Photograph: John Greene

With farmers on our mind, recently, and especially the ability of family farms to get harvesting and distribution done we are watching for stories like this:

Farmers across Europe bank on improvised armies of pickers to save harvest

Growers from Ireland to Spain says coronavirus lockdown has stopped migrant workers from arriving

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Workers on a farm at El Prat del Llobregat, near Barcelona, harvest artichokes in March. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

At this time of year John Greene is usually preparing to welcome dozens of Slovakian strawberry pickers for another harvest at his farm in County Wexford in south-east Ireland.

The work is arduous and repetitive and he relies on their experience and stamina to get the fruit picked, packed and sold.

Greene surveyed his fields this week with foreboding. “I look out my window and there’s no one to pick it. None of them are on site at the moment.”

His pickers remain in Slovakia, immobilised by a continent-wide lockdown. It is a similar story for hundreds of thousands of other seasonal agricultural workers who cannot travel just at a time when Europe needs them for harvests. Continue reading

Our Ferias, April 2020 Onward

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Feria2020dSince the 1990s, when we moved to the town of Escazú in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, every Saturday morning begins at the farmer’s market, locally known as a feria. A rustic, informal gathering when we started shopping there, with little variety to select from, we bought basics like carrots and potatoes back then. We moved to India in 2010 and when we returned to Costa Rica in 2018 and resumed this Saturday ritual, we discovered what is now a remarkably wide selection of fruits and vegetables, dairy products and freshly roasted coffees, meats and fish, as well as handicrafts. Artichokes were our happiest surprise.

Feria2020eAsparagus is a close second. There is a vermiculturist who sells compost, and she also offers the service of bringing worms to your garden to set up a home garden composting system. There are families who we have known these two decades whose kids have taken over the farm, and the market responsibilities.

The farmer’s market in Ithaca, NY–our family’s benchmark when we arrived in Costa Rica, was more festive than the experience in Escazú’s feria. Later, we came to enjoy the elegance of our neighborhood marché in Paris. Likewise, while living on the island of Kalamota, our Saturday ritual was a ferry ride to Dubrovnik harbor where we would shop for the week at the excellent poljoprivredno tržište, a farmer’s market that in addition to fresh fruits and vegetables introduced us to ajvar (roasted sweet pepper salsa), walnut liqueur, and other Croatian delicacies. My memory of the farmer’s market in India where we shopped for nearly seven years is for some reason dominated by bananas.

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Now in Escazú’s feria we regularly find oyster mushrooms, two varieties of eggplant, three varieties of kale, and four varieties of avocado, not to mention this fruit that is unlike any I have seen or tasted anywhere else that we have lived or traveled. The farmer who offered it to me earlier this month explained how to open and eat it. He wanted to gift me some to take home to try, and buy the following week if I liked it.  Instead, I told him I liked the sample, bought a few and suggested I would find him next week if the ones I bought did not taste as good. He laughed and we settled for that.  For all their differences, Escazú’s feria does what the Ithaca, Paris, Dubrovnik and Kochi farmer’s markets do besides providing fresh produce: allow townspeople to know the farmer’s who grow their food.

That has been on my mind since nine days ago, when we decided that we would not shop in this crowded space, even if it remains open. I realized that it is likely to close the way many places are being forced to close currently, in part because it is a confined space and also because it is a cash economy, neither of which will help flatten the curve the way this country is working so hard (and so far, relatively effectively) to do.

But on my mind is not how I will miss the produce and the experience so much as wondering what I personally might do to ensure that the families whose farms depend on the feria make it through the next months. It occurs to me that the Community Supported Agriculture model gives farmers in the USA an alternative to these markets. One my sister is a member of in Atlanta is an example of a successful CSA. I have started imagining a social enterprise, limited in time and scope for this exact purpose: a 6-month single-purpose business that will receive the produce of these farmers, clean it and distribute it to homes that have always shopped at these ferias, and especially those who can afford to pay for the service, in the interest of supporting the family farms who serve the ferias of the Central Valley. My recent business interests, which I have enjoyed sharing about in these pages are anyway going to be on hold. April 1 to September 30, 2020 maybe I will be on a new mission.

Functioning Ecosystems Are Key To Our Future

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“How do we feed the nine billion?” Fiennes said. “Through functioning ecosystems.” Photograph by Siân Davey for The New Yorker

The title of this post, paraphrasing the subject of the profile below, states the obvious. Sometimes, that must be. Thank you, Sam Knight:

CAN FARMING MAKE SPACE FOR NATURE?

After Brexit, the obsessions of Jake Fiennes could change how Britain uses its land.

One day last summer, Jake Fiennes was lost in a cloud of butterflies. He was on a woodland path near Holkham Beach, on the north coast of Norfolk. Every decade or so, ten million painted-lady butterflies, which are orange, black, and white, migrate to Britain from tropical Africa. The hot summer meant that it was a bumper year for native species, too, and the painted ladies mingled with red admirals, peacocks, and common blues, feeding on bushes set back a few yards from the path. “Just sat in a haze of flittering, fluttering butterflies,” Fiennes told me later. “I was in awe. These flowers were just exploding.” Continue reading

Farms & Non-Farms For Our Future

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Critics note that flawed strategies have encouraged tree farms, such as this oil palm plantation in Costa Rica. SHUTTERSTOCK

Richard Conniff explains why tree farms, like the one pictured above, are not part of the solution to climate change, whereas abandoned ancient farms like the one picture below may be part of the solution:

Could Abandoned Agricultural Lands Help Save the Planet?

Agriculture’s global footprint is decreasing — more land globally is now being abandoned by farming than converted to it. This, some researchers contend, presents an opportunity for ecological restoration that could help fight climate change and stem the loss of biodiversity.

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The town of Castro Laboreiro, Portugal, where former grazing lands have reverted to nature. ANTONIO LOMBA/FLICKR

People have lived in Castro Laboreiro, where northern Portugal borders Spain, long enough to have built megaliths in the mountainous countryside and a pre-Romanesque church, from 1,100 years ago, in the village itself. But the old rural population has dwindled away, leaving behind mostly elders yearning for their vanishing culture. Continue reading